Sex and Social Isolation: The Writing Sex Series During COVID-19

Jonathan Alexander reflects on the interviews he conducted for LARB’s Writing Sex series.

Sex and Social Isolation: The Writing Sex Series During COVID-19

WRITING SEX, which I called a Zoomcast or Zoomseries, is a set of videos created specifically for distribution through the Los Angeles Review of Books. As a longtime contributor and editor for LARB, I approached Tom Lutz, founding and (at the time) general editor, about a series of interviews with major and up-and-coming writers exploring issues of sex, sexuality, gender, and intimacy in provocative and cutting-edge ways.


This was shortly before the pandemic, in 2018 or 2019, when any number of “sex issues” were creating moral panics, public outcry, legal investigations, and even, sadly, personal trauma. The #MeToo movement was drawing much-needed and regrettably belated attention to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual abuse in a variety of workplaces. The Catholic Church was (finally, maybe?) beginning to acknowledge the sustained cover-ups of rampant sexual abuse and pedophilia among its clergy, and there were emerging and comparable abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention. A Supreme Court nominee made it to the highest court in the land despite allegations and a prolonged, painful hearing about sexual misconduct. Scrutiny of trans individuals was beginning to heat up and battles over bathrooms raged, while Florida tried to decide how much “gay” it could tolerate in its public school curricula.


Not a pretty time, politically, for sex.


At the same time, though, sex and sexuality seemed to be enjoying something of a media heyday, with any number of sexually diverse characters representing a range of identities, communities, interests, and positions available for perusal throughout mainstream and independent media. Michaela Coel’s stunning HBO-BBC series I May Destroy You (2020) might have dealt with some of the least savory aspects of sexuality being debated in the public and political spheres, but it did so with extreme intelligence and sophistication. On the flip side, more “positive,” sex-affirming representations and considerations of the sexual permeated media, mass and otherwise, as in the British TV series Sex Education (2019– ) and a spate of similar shows, many aimed at youth, such as Hulu’s Love, Victor (2020–22), culminating most recently in the UK show Heartstopper (2022– ), a nearly saccharine depiction of gay teen romance and intimacy.


In many ways, this context makes almost fatuous the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s claim in Sexistence (2017), one of his last published books, that sex is among the most “ontological” of our experiences, the one that grounds and circumscribes most everything we do or understand about ourselves—so much so that, in Nancy’s parlance, sex is existence: sexistence. As Irving Goh, one of Nancy’s most significant interlocutors, points out, “Sex is, as always, a messy affair: it never ceases to upend societies and cultures in every epoch.” At the same time, not wanting to cede the (ontological) ground of sex only to negative forms of disruption, Goh explains that “[w]hat sex adds to (co)existence is a sense of an overflowing, oftentimes uncontrollable excess, exposing each of us to, if not as, more than ourselves.” To be sure, there’s still more than a hint of the disruptive in the “overflowing, oftentimes uncontrollable excess,” but Goh and Nancy, despite their heady philosophical claims, seem to want to lower the temperature around sex at moments—or at least feel the heat differently. That is, sex isn’t—or shouldn’t be—just devastating; it is also an opening, even an affirmation, of connection and possibility. And, if you dare, it can be an experience of exposing oneself to new possibilities of relating, identifying, and being.


Such thoughts mirror some of the academic debates about sex and sexuality that have been circulating under the rubric of queer theory, that ungainly mass of interventions, provocations, and intellections which have, since the 1990s, sought (at least) to critique the normative (and normalizing) dimensions of sex and sexuality while also honoring the diverse embodied epistemologies that lie beyond cisheteropatriarchy. Sex is knowledge, knowledge is power, power is disciplining, disciplining creates possibilities for resistance—so sex is both the enactment of disciplinary regimes of power/knowledge and also the embodiment of the capacity for being otherwise, or so the Foucauldian story goes.


But sex and sexuality in queer theory were also getting new life, or at least new twists in the bedsheets, through, for instance, the work of affect theorists like Jack Halberstam, who courted “failure” to adhere to our culture’s normalizing standards of success as an opening up to new possibilities of thinking, feeling, and being: embrace being a fuck-up and you might just find new ways to fuck (with) yourself and others. Even more, scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019), have unearthed the hidden histories of forgotten Black women who, 100 years ago, were resisting racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism to forge new ways of being—and loving—in the world. The political debates about sex and sexuality might suggest that sex was hitting hard times, but between the media and the academy, discourses and explorations of the sexual seemed to be expanding, diversifying, and getting even more interestingly complicated.


As I said at the outset, all of this thinking and theorizing about sex and sexuality was swimming around in my head in the lead-up to COVID-19 and the great pandemic lockdown. Plans for the Writing Sex series, which I imagined would address these and other issues, were, on the one hand, interrupted by the commencement of social isolation, and, on the other hand, given a strange new life and impetus by that isolation. After all, the pandemic was raising a lot of questions about the precarity of bodies at a time of increased social contact across the globe. What are we doing with our bodies? What do our bodies want to do with us? Such questions were thrown into stark relief during the lockdown as life rhythms shifted and new, different orientations for care—for ourselves and those we love and are intimate with—began to be needed.


Many of us considered how the pandemic highlighted questions—where have you been recently and what have you exposed yourself to?—that felt eerily familiar to the early days of the AIDS epidemic: whom have you slept with recently and what’s their status? In terms of disease transmission, strange homologies emerged between questions of whom you were just hanging out with (COVID) and whom you were sleeping with (AIDS). But also, many of us considered more carefully how we take care of our bodies, and how we take care of one another, at a time of increased somatic vulnerability. Many of us also became far more cognizant of how socioeconomic realities position some bodies as more able to take care of themselves than others. How do such growing awarenesses prompt us to think not just about our bodies as bodies but also about our bodies being together?


And so, with such questions rattling around in my head, Writing Sex launched on August 23, 2020, with an interview with Dennis Cooper, on lockdown in his Paris apartment. I had long been a fan of Cooper’s queerly provocative writing and was eager to talk to him about his recent forays into filmmaking and his (at the time) upcoming book, I Wished (2021), a backwards glance on his famous George Miles Cycle of novels about his youthful obsession with a young friend. Cooper was an interesting first choice because his work has been the subject not just of provocation but also of outright consternation, with even many gay readers protesting his extreme fantasies of queer sex and serial-killer-style encounters. But it is precisely Cooper’s edge that I was (and had long been) interested in: What are we doing with our bodies? What happens when we push our imagination of the “sexual” and the “erotic” as far as we can stand? If sexistence is our fundamental shared ontology, then why settle for what we’re given when we can instead use the sexual as an opportunity to extend and expand what the body can know, feel, experience, be, and become?


Of course, you don’t have to accept sexistence as our shared fundamental ontology (I’m not sure I do), and you certainly don’t have to accept Cooper’s particular attempt to extend and expand—if not outright break—it. Plenty of other writers offer their own ways of thinking and feeling the sexual, as I quickly discovered in interviews with Garth Greenwell (and the love of Eastern European sluts!), André Aciman (who doesn’t want to be called by someone else’s name sometimes?), Zaina Arafat (bisexual chic is back!), Eric Nguyen (queer and Asian in the not-so-new world), Saeed Jones (Black is beautiful even if you have to convince yourself sometimes), Andrew Durbin (sunning himself and a friend on a Greek isle while looking for creative inspiration), and Pamela Sneed (remembering those we lost to AIDS and racism).


I loved talking to all of these writers, and I’d have a hard time choosing a “favorite,” though some really stick out for me, our conversations lingering in my head, catching me off guard at times. Torrey Peters and Mia McKenzie, for instance, spoke movingly and smartly about their stunning novels, Detransition, Baby and Skye Falling respectively (both 2021), two books that play with the “chick lit” genre, twisting its nipples into new trans and Black erotic territories. Alex Espinoza taught me a lot about the history of Cruising (1980), and Michael Lowenthal commiserated about the legacies of sexual abuse, including the demonization of the intergenerational sexual encounter. Micah Nemerever offered thoughts on queer obsession and pathology in These Violent Delights (2020) that rival Cooper’s but with a deadpan style. Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017) titillated like few other books, as the eponymous title character snuggled a dildo harness up to his vagina. And Sigrid Nunez challenged the possibilities—and limits—of female friendship and intimacy in What Are You Going Through (2020), a book whose title alone seemed so apt for the pandemic time.


Another great pleasure of the series was getting a bit beyond “lit fic” and exploring more genre-forward work. Michael Nava, of whom I’ve long been a fan, talked with me about the return of his gay Latino lawyer/detective Henry Rios, and our conversation oozes with my fanboy crush. Malinda Lo and Adib Khorram joined me from the world of young adult fiction, linking my two LARB worlds: I had been the section editor for YA lit at the time, and I couldn’t resist interviewing two authors who were themselves pushing the boundaries of sexuality within the genre. Lo had already established her queer cred with her lesbian fantasies and romances, and her National Book Award–winning Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021), about Asian immigrants and lesbianism in midcentury San Francisco, deserved attention. So too did Khorram’s extraordinary Darius the Great Is Not Okay (2018), a novel about a young Persian American teen who suffers from anxiety and might just be gay himself. These are lovely books, with fetching characters and sympathetic portrayals of growing up different, that were such a tonic during the homebound days of lockdown.


Given the amount of exciting writing about sex coming out at the time, I couldn’t limit myself even just to fiction, so I branched out with Daniel Lupo, whose 2021 translation of Hervé Guibert’s Arthur’s Whims (1983) brought not only one of my favorite author’s books into English but also a new friend into my life. Jack Halberstam, a longtime buddy, delighted me with their thoughts on The Disorder of Desire (2020) and the need to think beyond the queer (alone) and toward more intersectional, even abolitionist ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the world. And Jenn Shapland gave what is still one of my favorite interviews about My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (2020), a stunning book about thinking—and living—queerness in the archives of a favorite author.


A memoirist myself, I delighted in interviewing authors whose own life writing pushes the boundaries of what sex and the erotic can show us about ourselves and each other. Myriam Gurba’s Mean (2017) explores the aftermath of sexual trauma in the most delightful life- and body-affirming ways possible, while Julietta Singh’s No Archive Will Restore You (2018) probes the messiness of loving, giving birth, and loving still further. Furthermore, adrienne maree brown could not have been a better guide to sex and pleasure as acts of resistance in late-stage neoliberal capitalism, joining both Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (author of The Freezer Door, 2020) and McKenzie Wark (Reverse Cowgirl, 2020) in pushing their own boundaries of gender, intimacy, and queer community. And, as a bonus, I reached out and interviewed painter Doron Langberg, whose brilliantly saturated works of queer desire form their own contribution to “life writing” writ large.


All of these writers, thinkers, and artists offer compelling insights into the many ways we might answer questions about what to do with our bodies, what to do with other bodies, and how our bodies together—coming together, coming apart—are part of not just our sexistence but also our future on this planet. It doesn’t at all feel overblown to say at this moment that the way we imagine our sexual and intimate relations with one another is directly tied to the way we imagine—and enact—our individual and collective relations to the planet. Will we approach each other with the care, curiosity, and generosity that most of these artists and theorists espouse? And can that care, curiosity, and generosity operate as a metonym for larger cares, curiosities, and generosities we need to extend to the wider world? Or will we clamp down on diversity, resisting the challenges that it brings us to think and feel and live—and love—more expansively? Will we limit our imaginative capacity in thinking of and exploring new and better—more pleasurable, more sustaining—ways to be with one another? Or will we continue to instrumentalize one another in the same ways we have been instrumentalizing the planet as a whole, to its detriment and our own?


I’m grateful to all of these creative folks for spending a half hour with me at a time, talking about, exploring, and sharing how we might approach these and other questions, and I particularly appreciate their willingness to talk during the pandemic time—a time of crisis that seems, frankly, ongoing, extending, and evolving into other crises, other challenges. Often, before getting down to the work at hand, I asked each guest how they were handling the pandemic, and their answers alone—varied, intimate, human—constitute an archive of the time, a testimony to what many of us, with roofs over our heads and food in our bellies, were experiencing. I will always be grateful to these artists for sharing their work, and a bit of their lives. And I am grateful to Los Angeles Review of Books for making a home for these interviews, archiving them for a future that will all too soon forget the historical context in which they were made but that should, I hope, remember the writers, thinkers, and creatives who helped us get through it.


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Jonathan Alexander is a special projects editor at Los Angeles Review of Books and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine.


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Featured image: Patrick Henry Bruce. Composition III, 1916. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Collection Société Anonyme. artgallery.yale.edu, CC0. Accessed July 5, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 

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